Being the Church in a Age of Juvenilization
One day while Jesus was teaching the multitudes, people brought the grey-haired old folks to him, hoping he might touch them. When the disciples saw it, they were indignant and shooed them off. But Jesus called them back. "Let these seniors alone. Don't get between them and me. These folks are the kingdom's pride and joy."
Yes. I’ve rewritten the story upside down. But I wonder if Jesus had come in our day if the disciples wouldn’t have tried to shoo away seniors rather than children. As the color of my remaining hair continues to turn to white, I’m beginning to wonder if that might be the case.
Since the middle of the last century, Americans have idolized youth culture. Sure, people have always tried to postpone their personal appointment with the undertaker. Every culture has sought the “fountain of youth.” Ponce De Leon has his shrine in St. Augustine, Florida. Baseball superstar, Ted Williams had his body cryonically preserved in the hope that he might be revived someday with a technology not yet known. The writers of the Scripture frequently remind us that we are like the grass that springs up and just as quickly withers away.
But our obsession with youth culture in the last fifty years is without historical precedent as far as I can tell. Those who study these things could tell us more precisely if that is the case and how and when it began. It is understandable that a nation and culture that had spent the previous fifteen years struggling through the Great Depression and World War II would turn their attention to their children. Perhaps our obsession with youth started with James Dean who became an icon of rebellion through a very brief career on the big screen and his untimely death in a tragic car accident. The advent of rock and roll, the quintessential music of youthful rebellion, occurred during same period. Certainly, the fact that we transitioned from a print to a broadcast culture in the twentieth century helped us on the way as we became enamored with the young. The explosion in music recording and filmmaking provided a medium to propagate and romanticize the adolescent and young adult experience.
Evangelicals rode the wave of youthful emphasis during this same period by starting Young Life and Youth for Christ, two organizations whose mission was focused exclusively on reaching the burgeoning youth population and culture. They adapted their music and their methodology to resonate with teenagers. Local churches responded to the focus of the culture by hiring youth ministers. The evangelical response to our culture’s emphasis was right and good. There are probably very few adults in church today under sixty who haven’t been impacted – some very profoundly – by local or parachurch youth ministries. I was, and I’m very grateful.
But there is a problem with our cultural obsession with youth in the church. And it should be examined through Scripture and honest reflection.
I’m in my mid-fifties. I feel a bit sheepish raising an issue about the juvenilization of ministry in the church.(1) I remember very clearly thinking twenty to thirty years ago that people who were in their fifties and sixties were not really “with it.” I was somewhat irritated that they wouldn’t get with it or (better yet) get out of the way so we could implement our progressive ideas. The church would really move forward then! And why were they so cranky? Ah, the good old days of the “generation gap.”
It’s still with us. And how did I get on the other side?
I think I first felt the sting of age discrimination when I was passed over for a worship pastor position that I really wanted. I was in my late forties at the time. When I asked why, I was told that my (old) age played a factor. Of course, such discrimination is illegal in other professions. But it is a reality in ministry. Since then, I’ve been told that I wasn’t relevant by a colleague in ministry. And it has sometimes been a challenge to win the trust of contemporary worship bands that I’ve led. My advancing age is a recurrent theme.
And I’m not the only one. My brother who is two years older than me has been frustrated for at least the last ten years. He’s a gifted worship leader, but he has been consistently denied opportunities because of his age. Recently, I’ve spoken with folks who are quite capable but have somehow received a message that they are no longer welcome or qualified to be worship leaders because of their age. Exclusion, especially in the church, is deeply wounding.
To be fair, there are issues. Contemporary praise and worship music has changed from a primarily piano-driven genre in the eighties to being guitar-driven since at least the mid-nineties. I’ve had to learn and change my technique. I’m still learning and recently, I’ve picked up the guitar.
But it’s not just about me. It’s not just about music. I’m concerned with the health of the evangelical church that has for the last fifty years focused, sometimes obsessively, on youth culture. (See my post on “Filtering the Waters of Willow Creek.”)
The Impact of Juvenilization
I’m concerned when a church community is divided because of generational differences, either perceived or real. It seems to me that the many of our churches have made real strides in gender justice. We work at being multi-cultural. But the missional focus of evangelical churches to be on the cutting edge of cultural relevancy seems to drive deepening divides between young and old. How many churches have “traditional” and “contemporary” services simply because they cannot find a way to bridge the gap between what seems to be generational preferences? In effect, they form different congregations so that people don’t have to “honor,” “prefer”, or “serve” one another – clear commands for us from the New Testament. There did not seem to be a generational divide in the early church. Sure, Peter told the elders to rule with sympathy and care and young men should respect the elders (I Peter 5:1-5). But first century culture had a sense of connectedness through generations rather than the competition that we have. Their struggle was the paradigm shift in welcoming Gentiles as fellow partakers into the Family of God. Today, the young/old divide in the western church has replaced the Jew/Gentile divide of the early church. Perhaps it would be useful for us to revisit New Testament Scripture and insert “young” or “old” in place of “Jew” or “Gentile.” Consider, for example, the insights it might offer if we read Ephesians 2:11-14 in that way:
Don’t forget that you [seniors] (or young people…depending on how you want to read this) used to be outsiders by [age]. You were called [irrelevant] by [young people], who were proud of their [music, clothes, hair, piercings, etc…], even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ [or so it seemed]. You were excluded from God’s people [the young], and you did not know the promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God [or so it seemed] and without hope. But now you belong to Christ Jesus. Though you once were far away from God, now you have been brought near to him because of the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has made peace between us [young people] and you [seniors] by making us all one people. He has broken down the wall of hostility that used to separate us.
Now I admit that I’ve violated the text by rewording it. Rewriting Scripture is a dangerous hermeneutic. Still, I think we need to recognize that our division and preferences over age in either direction does great violence to God’s design of unity through Christ Jesus.
I’m concerned also when ministry strategies seem to be subject first to the relevance rubric of popular culture. We need to be more discerning. Not all of popular culture is bad. Not all is good. But by holding relevance – which typically means compliance with the prevailing youth culture – as the first filter, the evangelical church has inadvertently and unknowingly impoverished itself. The jettisoning of religious symbols in the eighties and nineties is one example. Disdain for hymns is another. “Juvenilization” of evangelical ministry in the late twentieth century has left the church weakened. By and large, evangelical worshippers have a consumer approach to worship. Many of us “date” Jesus only to “break up” with him when life gets challenging. The divorce rate among evangelicals matches that of the surrounding culture.(2) For all of the accommodation to youth that we’ve done, we’re losing the next generation.(3) It’s time to grow up.
I don’t have all the answers. And I recognize that I may sound like those surly curmudgeons that I used to wonder about when I was in my twenties. But we need to ask some questions and reflect deeply on our approach to ministry for the Kingdom’s sake.
A Path Towards Renewal
I think that our problems stem from our lack of historical connectedness. It’s a modern condition. As a child of the 60’s, I wasn’t too enamored with the past. I, like most of the country, set my sights on the future – on reaching the moon. We were anticipating JFK’s “New Frontier.” I rode the Carousel of Progress at the World’s Fair in 1964 where I was promised “a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day!” Of course, Vietnam and Watergate shattered that dream. But instead of reassessing our place, we wallowed in self-pity and sunk into a “national malaise.”(4) When we finally emerged from that condition in the 1980’s we were more greedy and self-absorbed than ever. “Better get while the gettins’ good. It may be our only chance.” In the words of Christopher Lasch, we had become a “culture of narcissism.”(5)
In his book by the same title, Lasch pointed out our disconnect with historical place. We live for the moment, for ourselves, rather than for our predecessors or posterity. We don’t see ourselves as players in a grand story in which we have taken cues from those who’ve exited the stage. They’re not relevant. Nor do we seem to have much sense in which we need to set up those who follow us. I often wondered why the builder generation seemed reluctant to hand the reins of leadership over to boomers. I’m amazed that many of the same generation seem impervious to the fiscal perils that are facing our culture now, especially with Social Security and Medicare. Lasch explains, “Because the older generation no longer thinks of itself as living on in the next, of achieving a vicarious immortality in posterity, it does not give way gracefully to the young.” (213)
We are all guilty. We need to recover the sense of place in God’s story that Moses had. “Lord, through all the generations you have been our home.” (Psalm 90:1) We need to take our place, to play our part in “the Grand Story” of God. Below are a few practical thoughts that I’ve had about being the Church in this age of juvenilization.
First, boomers and the builders who are able need to become mentors of the next generation. I have wondered, sometimes aloud to my students, if boomers will be reluctant to give away power and place like the builders, or if we will focus our efforts on mentoring the next generation. There is no reason to hope that we will step aside unless we grasp our place in history. We live in very challenging times. There are social, economic, technological, and spiritual earthquakes occurring all around us. And there is reason to hope as we look to the millennial generation.(6) But boomers must unselfishly consider their place in the drama of history and then mentor and empower their children for the immense challenges that lie ahead. Those in the builder generation who still have the energy and health have an advantage in speaking to young people. Social historians William Strauss and Neil Howe believe millenials have more in common with builders than with their parents. Because builders are a generation removed, they are generally perceived as “cool.” Most builders are no longer clinging to social place and power and therefore are not a threat to youthful progress.
I am grateful for the five years that I had to teach and mentor young people in a Christian University. Though sometimes irresponsible and not always wise, I admired their passion for the Kingdom. And I well remember the fire that flamed in my heart and mind when I was at that stage. The church needs the fire, passion, and vision of the millennial generation. We’re losing young adults in our churches. Their absence is apparent in almost every evangelical congregation. Could it be that part of the reason why young adults drop out of church is because they are not being given leadership opportunities? Recall that most of the twelve apostles were probably teenagers or in their twenties when they began following Jesus. Boomers need to mentor and empower the next generation now.
Second, teenagers and twenty-somethings need to respect and honor their parent’s generation. Admittedly, this is counterintuitive. Most generations react or rebel against their parents. It’s the rhythm of life and probably a corrective for most societies. Frankly, I’m quite ready for some of the boomer values in ministry to be replaced. But most young adults are not fully equipped to be released unhindered and unsupervised into leadership and responsibility. Builders and boomers have lived through a challenging and transitional period in history. Like them, the next generation needs a sense of their place in the story and to learn from the wisdom and experiences of their forbearers.
Finally, we all need a good dose of humility. The mark of a truly educated and mature person is the acceptance that he or she does not have all the answers. Both young and old in the church need to cultivate a stewardship of life that includes an insatiable desire to learn and grow. Boomers do need to learn from younger people. The world is changing. People are thinking differently than they did twenty years ago. Boomers can learn from the emerging generation’s critique of our values and practices. On the other hand, young people need to pursue learning and growth from wherever it may come so that they may wisely confront the challenges that they will be facing. May we join hearts and hands so that together we can face the daunting task that lies before us.
“Teach us to number our days, so that we may grow in wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
1. I am indebted to the work of my former colleague, Tom Bergler, Associate Professor of Youth Ministry at Huntington University for term and concept of “juvenilization of ministry.” His research and the implications that he draws are sorely needed in modern evangelical ministry.
2. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/56-born-again-adults-less-likely-to-co-habit-just-as-likely-to-divorce?=divorce+rate+evangelical 9/15/2010
3. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/147-most-twentysomethings-put-christianity-on-the-shelf-following-spiritually-active-teen-years?q=young+adults 9/15/2010
4. President Jimmy Carter coined this term for our national condition in a speech delivered on the anniversary of his nomination, July 15, 1979.
5. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. (1979)
6. See William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning (1997) and Millenials Rising (2000)